Who will go fourth and conquer?
Today Liverpool meet City – the main threat to their status in the 'Big Four'. Ian Herbert reports on two clubs, with two starkly different football philosophies, caught in battle for the same prize
Saturday 21 November 2009
The task of resurrecting Liverpool's season always did look like the mother of all ventures so it's as well that Rafael Benitez has been looking in the right place. "Are you married?" he asked yesterday, when asked to expand on how the process of slapping horse placenta on his injured players has left his side in a fit state to meet Manchester City this lunchtime. "Ask your wife," he replied.
Mrs Montse Benitez might have been consulted by her husband, considering that until 15 days ago he was unaware of the Belgrade pharmacologist Marijana Kovacevic. Now, her work on Glen Johnson, Albert Riera and Yossi Benayoun has helped him to reassemble a side. The team will also include Steven Gerrard, though not Fernando Torres and Alberto Aquilani for the arrival of opposition who are salivating over the thought of stealing Liverpool's top-four spot.
Benitez is not alone in joining the astonishing recent scramble for her placenta cream. Kovacevic, currently working with Frank Lampard, also lists City's Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta on her client roster. But few managers have been more in need of a rescue remedy than Benitez, ahead of the eight days which are about to unfold. Rarely over the course of the past few years have Liverpool been more than a few games from a crisis but here comes a defining period with the half-lost battle for Champions League survival up ahead in Hungary on Tuesday night and a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park five days later. To lose two would begin to test the patience of the fans. To lose all three would begin to test the board's reluctance to lose the manager, with the destabilising effect on their search for investors that would bring.
First City, though, and an encounter as beguiling as perhaps any other this season. It is a clash of cultures: Liverpool, comparatively impoverished but aristocrats no less and, to Benitez's mind, rich in a tradition of building organically; City, the arrivistes, building a side from scratch to burst in on the elite. For City, victory will be evidence at last of the club arriving as a force. For Liverpool, it will, as Benitez put it yesterday "show we are still alive" – and that is certainly a start.
A toxic mix then, even before you throw in the ingredient of Gareth Barry. When Mark Hughes gazumped Benitez for his services this summer, it was a graphic demonstration of who calls the shots in the transfer market now, with Benitez so incensed that he said Barry moved "clearly just for money." But money talks and it was not by accident that when Hughes was asked yesterday afternoon whether City would ever be capable of signing Torres that he simply flashed a wicked grin. He knows that the loss of a Champions League place next spring and the resulting prestige for Liverpool will probably make the future for both manager and striker far less certain.
For all that, Benitez exuded as much calm as Hughes yesterday, elegantly swatting away talk of a poll of Premier League managers which has revealed 80 per cent think City will break into the top four. "I was not in the 80 per cent," he said. He correctly discerns that Hughes, custodian of City's drive to get somewhere in a blinding hurry, is the manager under the greater pressure. For once, Benitez was able to use Liverpool's limited spending power to his own advantage – shrewdly casting Liverpool among the little clubs of the Premier League. "It's not easy to do what City are doing, because we have seen before with Chelsea, spending big money, a lot of players, and OK maybe you can be successful – but for how long?" he said. "For the majority of the clubs it is not easy to do this because we don't have the money. We have to build the team little by little, and try to be successful with the signings elsewhere."
There was another neat piece of characterisation when Benitez cast his own side as one ready to nurture local players and City, whom we learnt this week are beginning to look further afield, as something else. "In the short term, you can be successful. But if you talk about long term, you have to keep building," Benitez said. "If you can produce local players you have more passion, more desire, more commitment with the club. But that needs time."
Though it suits any beleaguered manager to describe himself as in "the first year of my second five years" as Benitez put it in an interview this week, there is no avoiding this moment of truth. The Liverpool manager, who judges David Ngog to have been unaffected by the controversy surrounding his dive for the equalising penalty against Birmingham and ready to start in Torres' absence, has something like a full-strength squad again, which means we now really can judge it – and him.
"If we can keep the players fit for a while you will see the difference," Benitez promised. "This season has been very difficult but just to see Gerrard on the pitch [against Birmingham] was a massive thing." The manager has had use of the afterbirth. Now for the rebirth.
Reds menaced: Liverpool's challengers
Tottenham Hotspur (4th)
(last finished in top four: 1989-90)
Spent hugely in an attempt to break the cartel, working through several managers in the process. Pushing again under Harry Redknapp but still struggle to defeat big teams – with the exception of Liverpool – and have an injury-prone central defence.
Aston Villa (5th)
(last finished in top four: 1995-96)
Under Randy Lerner and Martin O'Neill, Villa have become a credible force, finishing sixth in successive campaigns, but a lack of depth undid them last season and they still seem short, notably in defence.
Manchester City (6th)
(last finished in top four: 1977-78)
With the Abu Dhabi billions underpinning them there is no denying the ambition, but there is more to team-
building than throwing cash at players. Nevertheless, given time, Mark Hughes should create a Champions League team. If given time.
(last finished in top four: 2004-05)
The most recent team to break through, but lost in qualifying to miss out on the Champions League lucre. Started slowly but have picked up and should continue to rise when Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka return.
Liverpool's week of destiny
Today: Manchester City (h) Prem
Moneybags City roll into Anfield to emphasise Reds’ financial problems.
Tuesday: Debrecen (a)Champs Lg
Long trip to Hungary likely to see Champions League exit confirmed.
Sunday 29th November: Everton (a) Prem
Always-friendly trip across StanleyPark
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